Tajikistan #3 – The Roof of the World

by Jul 11, 2017Blogs, Central Asia, Overland, Silk road, Stories, Tajikistan


So, remember the cliffhanger from our last blog? While getting ready for the most challenging part of our journey, we were both not feeling well. Is it the altitude that makes us feel sick? Or do we have some kind of stomach infection? The coming days we will make our way over the M41 – the famous Pamir Highway. Well highway… Yes – we will be driving on extreme high altitudes. In fact it is the second highest highway in the world! But apart from that: it is not a highway in the way we know it in most parts of the world. Instead, it is a gravel road, full of corrugation and steep passes…. The road has been in use for millennia and formed one of the links on the ancient Silk road between Europe and the Far East, and speaks to our imagination. It will be an adventure, that’s for sure. Fingers crossed that it will be a good one!

Ready or not?

Abi seems ready, but we are not as strong as we feel normally. After me being quite sick yesterday, now Roderick is not feeling well. He feels nauseous too, and doesn’t have a lot of energy. Why today? We are going to drive one of the toughest parts of this trip. We are supposed to drive 100 kilometer from Zong to Bulunkul over very, very bad roads and make our way over the 4.344 meter high Korgush pass. We already heard from other overlanders that parts of the road are very steep and that altitude sickness on this stretch is happening a lot. We need our team to be in top shape. After breakfast Roderick gets a little better and we decide to give it a try. When we leave the Wakhan valley we are starting the 100 kilometer without any facilities. So, let’s stock up on water. When we want to fill up after Langar, we don’t seem to find any water tap. What to do?! .. in the end we find a small stream next to the road and we take buckets of water from it into our tanks. Our water filter will do the trick. With the 25 liters of water we should make it there! It doesn’t feel good not to be 200% prepared for this part… “When the bus has a problem, I am not worried too much: I will find a solution to fix it. But when I am not feeling good myself, I get worried…”, he explains. But in the meantime the landscape surrounding us, is really impressive: as we climb higher and higher, the landscape is getting dry and desolate. No villages, only a moon-like hilly landscape with every now and then a little bit of snow that covers its top. And a lot of sand, stones and dust. And this dust gets everywhere: in the cabin, in the kitchen drawers, in our bed.. everything is covered in it! The only strategy to cope with it is to just not worry too much about it.

To prevent ourselves from altitude sickness we stop every now and then to take a break: drink some tea, eat a little. Slowly we make our way to the pass. The roads are like washboards and everything inside our bus is shaking and trembling: will Abi make it in one piece? Just 12 kilometer before the pass, at a military checkpost, we meet one of our cyclist friends: Tex is making the strenuous climb all on his own. Wow, a lot of respect for those crazy cyclist! He really wants to shave his itchy beard, so Roderick gets out his trimmer and on 3.900 meter he trims Tex’ beard. Not an average thing to do on this altitude!

Driving on the moon

Time to continue for the last kilometers before the pass. The views are amazing: the sky is bright blue, and the landscape is so different from anything that we have seen before. When there are colours, they look so much more intense in this landscape in all shades of brown and grey. On 4.300 meter we pass two clear blue lakes and we see a group of orange marmots, bigger than a cat! Before we started this trip, there were people warning us that an Mercedes 508 probably won’t make it easily at this altitude, but Abi is still going strong! Before we know it, we passed the 4.344 meters and we are on our way down again. No pushing Abi over the top, just on his own power. Yahoo! We did it! It feels great and we almost forget that we were not feeling that well. Somewhat later the dirt roads ends and we have a stretch of tarmac…., yes, really! Wow, it has been days and days on very very bad roads full of potholes and washboard: this is such a relieve! Roderick gets out and kisses the road: sometimes it feels so good to be able to drive on a decent road again!

But we are not able to enjoy the tarmac for long.. after 5 kilometer we take a right towards Bulunkul lake. The last 15 kilometer we continue our way over washboard roads and while the sun is setting we reach the scenic high altitude Bulunkul lake at 3.750 meter. So calm and quiet, nobody there. On the other side of the lake we see a small village and some yurts dotting the grasslands. Local people are harvesting the grass. Tomorrow we will have a look there, we say to each other. At this altitude it is getting quite cold in the night – it is already around 5 degrees – so we want to heat our bus a little. But after several tries, the heater won’t start….! And when we want to use some water, also the water pump stopped working… What is wrong? For the first time this trip those essentials are not working properly.. And… Roderick is feeling sick as well! It seems like he is having a fever and is feeling very weak.. Maybe it has something to do with the altitude? We decide to go to sleep and we keep our fingers crossed that tomorrow everything will be better.

Murphy’s law…

What a night…!! We are both very happy that it is getting light again. During the night Roderick was feeling very sick: nauseous, high temperatures, etcetera. We both were in doubt.. is this altitude sickness? What are the symptoms actually? We know there is only one solution for it: getting down to lower altitude. I was already preparing myself to take Roderick down in the early morning. But to where? We are on a high plateau and the nearest place below 3.500 meter will take us a few hours of driving at least.. What can we do in the middle of nowhere? When the sun starts shining, we both feel relieved: at least we made it to the day and we are able to make a plan. The same moment Roderick starts burping a lot. And the specific thing is: the burps smells, like rotting eggs.. A very strong and distinctive smell (sorry for the details ;-)). Since he has some experience with this from former trips we both realize: this is Giardia. A parasite in your intestine, caused by infected water. Really helpful to have an idea what might be the cause of his symptoms! Luckily we are prepared for this and brought the antibiotics that can kill the parasite. Because the symptoms are quite strong, he starts with the antibiotics immediately: he has to take 8 pills a day for 3 days in a row.

And now the water system… quite essential :-). After some tests we find out that the system is only working when we first suck some water out of the hose in the kitchen. Probably the different pressure on this altitude is giving problems. But also the 25 liters of water that we got at the stream is finished. What to do? Roderick is looking pale and lying in bed. I walk down to the lake to try to find a place without algae and plants to take some water. The mosquitoes are attacking me the moment I get down. But I manage to find a place to get some water. With a full bucket I walk the 100 meters up again. Pretty strenuous at this altitude! After repeating this for 4 times, we have a tank with some green water and the water filters manage to make it into a yellowish kind of liquid which is drinkable. It doesn’t look so good but we are really happy we have some water again!

Yurts and Kyrgyz nomads

The antibiotics seem to do its job and Roderick is getting better and better. After a good night sleep his fever is down and we are able to move again. Time to explore the other side of the lake and visit one of the coldest permanently inhabited places in the world: Bulunkul village. From our side of the lake we could see the yurts and the few houses at to other side of the lake. When we drive closer we see beautiful handmade yurts that almost have the same sandy brown colour as the surrounding mountains, with a beautiful decoration around it. People are working on the land to cut the grass. The people who have their lands here are of Kyrgyz origin. Their faces look so different from the Tajik people: more Chinese or Mongolian. When the men come back from the fields, it is great to see how they are dressed: in their characteristic white high hats and long coats they look quite impressive. They are nomadic by nature, although they are now mostly living in villages. We are invited into one of the yurts. The son of this family is studying English and it is great to have the possibility to exchange things. For two weeks the families are working here all together and are harvesting the grass for their cattle for the coming winter. It is hard work and the only thing they have to eat on this high altitudes is coming from the yak: they drink milk from the yak, make yoghurt and butter out of it and eat some yak meat every now and then. Inside the yurt it is nice and warm and we drink a cup of tea with them and taste a little bit of the delicious yak butter and yoghurt. It is full of taste!

Out of this world

We continue our route in the direction of the village. Wow…. it looks out of this world: the pale and scattered light is giving a dusty glow to the square houses made out of clay. Children with wind-blown hair are running around, cars and metal seem be left decaying here. Old wagons made into a house, empty oil drums that seem to be used for everything and also as a support for a seesaw for the playing children. An old man with a sun burnt face is heating up the tandoor in front of their house. It looks wild! And we love it. The people are curious and they don’t need a real invitation to get into our house on wheels and have a look at everything. We walk into the surrounding fields and there they are… the majestic yaks! Some of the enormous cow like creatures look cute with their woolly hair, others look really scary: you don’t want to get into a fight with them.

A Kyrgyz family is living at the edge of the village. The old men of the house has a thin grey beard and is wearing the traditional high hat – he looks like a wizard to us. He is almost blind, but he is still curious who those strangers are that are visiting his land. He gets really close to Roderick and with his sunken pale blue eyes stare close up into Roderick’s eyes. And then he starts talking in a very low and vibrating voice, like he wants to tell him something very important. We have no idea what he is saying but it sounds impressive. Roderick instantly starts to speak in the same kind of low voice back to him. It only adds to the magical feeling we have for this rough place in the middle of nowhere!

4X4 challenges

The next day we continue our route further east. In a few days we will have to leave this beautiful country. Instead of driving back to the main road, we decide to take a 4×4 road towards Alichur. From the lake we drive into nothingness. And again: if we would imagine driving on the moon, it would be looking like this. No trees, no water: only mountains in all kinds of shades of grey, brown and even red. We pass by a small geyser and then what looked like a dirt road suddenly ends… What to do? We drive through a salty landscape, where once seemed to have been a lake or sea. The orange marmots are hiding behind some stones again. We get almost stuck at a very steep part, but with our skilled driver Roderick, our powerful Abi and some assistance by me, we make it  From a distance dark clouds heavy with rain are approaching us. The road is still very bad and we imagine when is starts raining here, we would be stuck for days… But then all of the sudden the roads gets a little better, we try to speed up. Just before the bad weather reaches us, we arrive in Alichur – a lonely town along the Pamir Highway. What a surprise: at some kind of a roadside restaurant we meet our cyclist friends again! When it starts snowing in Alichur, we decide altogether to spend the night here at one of the homestays. Time to exchange our adventures from the last days and weeks and play some cards.

A new high

After a lazy day the snowing ends and a beautiful blue sky is back! The peaks of the mountains are covered in snow and this makes it even more beautiful. We continue our route in the direction of Kyrgyzstan. On our way to the first city in a week we drive over a pass of 4.100 meter. In Murghab we have to chance to stock up again: the marketplace is a gathering of containers where we are able to find fruits and vegetables again. We are ready for the last two days to the border. The roads are mostly in very bad conditions: washboard for kilometers and kilometers… we are really surprised how our house in the back is still managing… OK, every now and then something breaks: a speaker falls off, and the next moment another, the exhaust connection breaks and Roderick is lying under the bus again to repair it, and we keep finding new ways to keep all our stuff in place. Slowly we make our way up to the highest pass of this trip: on 4.655 meters we are so proud of our Abi that we make a little dance for him!

Quite exhausting at this altitude, but it was the least we could do for him. In Kyrgyzstan we will give him some extra love and care. It is snowing when we make our last kilometers towards the Kyrgyz border. On our right side we drive along a fence where the no man’s land between Tajikistan and China begins. Wow, are we this far East? Through an abandoned landscape we make our way up the dirt road and then suddenly there are a few buildings, which are serving as the border post between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. And as we already read on the internet we are asked for a paper which we don’t have. We can drive all the way back to Murghab to get it, or pay some money. But Roderick perseveres and we get away with paying the only dollar we have left and a piece of homemade chocolate cake. Bye bye Tajikistan!

It has been such a great month: we are tired but very happy. We decide we have a new favourite country: the desolate nature, the warm and interesting people, the adventurous way of travelling here: Tajikistan is amazing!